Halifax police pepper-sprayed and arrested protesters in the city’s downtown Wednesday as officials began clearing dozens of tents and temporary shelters from encampments in local parks and green spaces.
At least five people were arrested in the morning at the old Spring Garden Road library site where protesters had linked arms to block the path of heavy machinery brought in to remove two wooden shelters.
One shelter was hauled away, but a second remained, with a protester sitting on the roof surrounded by a ring of police officers. He refused to leave.
The crowd, which shouted at police, grew to nearly 200 people by afternoon, and a number of other arrests were made.
After a few hours of negotiation, the man eventually climbed down from the shelter to loud cheers from the crowd. He was immediately handcuffed and arrested.
Soon afterwards, Halifax police used a sensory irritant on the crowd. People were seen trying to wash out their eyes. Various journalists said a child was sprayed. Paramedics soon arrived to provide medical attention.
“I watched two little kids here get sprayed today by police,” said Francis Doyle, who came downtown to show support for the protesters.
“There’s no call for that. These police officers, they’re policemen today, but if they didn’t have their police jobs, they could be the same way as these people: homeless. I’ve been there before.”
Just before 4 p.m., police put on body armour and riot gear and began advancing on the crowd, creating a path for a worker with a chainsaw who began destroying the shelter.
“The moment that structure reached a point where it was clear that nothing could be done, it was clear that we had failed, effectively, that hurt. That hurt a lot,” said Colton Morris, who joined the protest in the late afternoon.
“So many people, like over 200 people of the Halifax community came out today, came to vocalize their displeasure about this. And we were told, ‘No.'”
Morris said the scale of the police response was “terrifying” and characterized the day’s events as “a tragedy.”
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage told CBC News Wednesday afternoon that city staff, police and fire had been working on a plan for the evictions for the past few weeks. He said the timing had nothing to do with Tuesday’s provincial election.
Jacques Dubé, the municipality’s chief administrative officer, made the call for the evictions to happen Wednesday morning, Savage said.
“This is about health and safety and it’s gotten to the point now where there are a lot of issues … activities that have been happening around some of these encampments,” Savage said.
He said the other tent encampments were removed peacefully, and it wasn’t until people gathered on Spring Garden to “express their view” that things took a turn.
“The police are trying to do the situation without escalating it,” Savage said. “They’re trying to deal with this and treat people with the dignity they deserve.”
Savage repeated his message that street navigators and the province have offered everyone living in the various shelters an opportunity to move into temporary housing or a hotel for the immediate future.
Some Halifax police officers appeared to have removed their name tags from their uniforms.
More than a dozen people also sat at the bottom of Spring Garden Road near Barrington Street to block traffic, and other parts of the roadway. That traffic included a truck returning with the front-end loader that carried away the first shelter, and the police van carrying the man who’d sat on the shelter roof for hours.
As the situation unfolded, Halifax Pride cancelled three events set to take place Wednesday evening at the Garrison Grounds by the Halifax Citadel.
“Anyone in need of washrooms, food, first aid, or active listeners — our site is open to you until 11 p.m. (or later, if needed) tonight,” the group said via Twitter.
Halifax police said in a news release that a “number of people” had been arrested by 5:30 p.m. for obstructing and assaulting officers. Those arrested were expected to be released on promises to appear in court at later dates.
Police added their operation is ongoing and they would continue to provide updates.
There was no mention of why irritants or riot gear were used or whether children or other people were hurt in the police response.
Protester comes down off roof of homeless shelter. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Halifax?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Halifax</a> <a href=”https://t.co/tS4mjUS3NA”>pic.twitter.com/tS4mjUS3NA</a>
Police were also seen directing journalists to move away from the area as the journalists filmed the evictions.
The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) tweeted that they were “concerned about the limits police are placing on reporters covering the dismantling of these shelters,” and emphasized that reporters have the right to be there.
Savage said any infringement on the rights of journalists “would be dealt with.”
The removals come a month after similar controversial evictions of tent camps in Toronto parks by police.
By the early afternoon, dry patches of grass dotted Halifax parks and the Common where tents once sat.
In the city’s west end, at Horseshoe Island Park on the Northwest Arm, Matthew Smith said he was awoken at 6 a.m. by a group of about 20 police and city bylaw officers. He has been living in a tent for the past two weeks with his girlfriend and their cat.
He said they told him he and anyone else in nearby tents had to leave the area within an hour.
“They said if I didn’t pack up my stuff they would physically confiscate my stuff, confiscate my animal, and arrest me and take me to jail,” Smith said.
Smith said he and others were ticketed $237 for breaking the bylaw.
“Which, obviously no one can pay, because we’re living in a park,” he said.
Smith said they were told that the city would store belongings for free. He said he didn’t want to hand anything over and give them “the chance to just take everything.”
“We really don’t have anywhere to go,” Smith said.
He said his plan is to move to another park further from public view, but predicts the same scene will likely repeat in a couple of weeks.
Smith, who said he works 60 hours a week but can’t afford rent in Halifax, said he wasn’t offered any temporary housing options on Wednesday. “When it comes to housing there’s just nothing available,” he said.
Halifax police confirmed they began enforcing the removals at 6:15 a.m.
“Following an extensive and progressive effort, actions were taken today in the interest of public safety and safety of the occupants of these dwellings,” police said in a release.
Premier-designate Tim Houston, whose PC Party won a majority government Tuesday by defeating the governing Liberals, said during a news conference Wednesday that the housing crisis is “very real” in the province and did not develop overnight.
“We didn’t have tent cities eight years ago in this province. We have them now, so we need real solutions for housing,” he said. “We’re going to work with people to make sure that people can access housing.”
The PC election platform included affordable housing. Part of the plan includes selling or leasing public land for developers to build on, with the caveat that a portion has to be affordable housing.
Provincial NDP Leader Gary Burrill appeared at the protest in support of those being forced out, and was joined by a number of Halifax-area NDP candidates, including newly elected MLAs Lisa Lachance and Suzy Hansen.
The Tories have also said they will not extend rent control beyond the COVID-19 state of emergency. Houston repeated that stance on Wednesday morning and said increasing the housing stock is a better approach.
At the Peace and Friendship Park on Hollis Street, Thomas Johnstone and Kaileigh Bruce said they were awoken around 6 a.m. by others pointing out that a large group of police had arrived.
They have been staying in the park for the past two months, and also said the lack of housing in the area is why they’ve been living in a tent.
Bruce said others expect everyone to have a job, and a “nice life” with two kids and a car, when in reality not everybody can find work, or is ready for that step.
The city delivered about 40 notices to people living in tents across the municipality on Monday, according to a statement from city spokesperson Laura Wright.
The notice stated people living on municipal land were violating a bylaw, and they must vacate and remove all belongings from municipal property immediately.
Police now trying to break through protesters with force <a href=”https://t.co/xXqKF5zV2e”>pic.twitter.com/xXqKF5zV2e</a>
On Wednesday morning, a release from Halifax Regional Municipality said municipal compliance officers are “following up” with tent occupants to aid the safe removal of tents from municipal parks.
“The situation at a number of parks, due to the recent proliferation of tents, has created an increased risk to the health and safety of both the tent occupants and the public, and must be addressed,” the statement said.
The municipality said it has received numerous reports from residents about the tents, including public nuisance complaints and concerns for public safety.
Last month, similar notices appeared on crisis shelters around the city, saying that after July 13, city officials would remove the shelters and anything in them.
But when the deadline arrived, Savage said the deadline was a preferred “timeline” and no forced evictions would go ahead. He said he wanted to avoid any kind of confrontation and didn’t want to “criminalize homelessness.”
Ardath Whynacht, volunteer spokesperson for Halifax Mutual Aid, said the group was “very surprised” by the evictions Wednesday in light of Savage’s comments last month.
She pointed to the evictions coming on the morning after a provincial election, and suggested the city planned to act at that time to avoid media and public attention.
Moving people out of public areas doesn’t solve homelessness, Whynacht said, and only shifts them into more dangerous areas.
“This is a life-and-death crisis, especially during summer heat,” Whynacht said.
The municipality has said it is making sure those using the wooden shelters and tents work with street navigators, the provincial Department of Community Services and support workers to find a housing option that works for them.
Wright said that since July 1, about five former occupants have accepted a housing option.
One of those options could be a local hotel, but 10 community groups have denounced the city’s “heavy-handed” approach and noted hotels are not appropriate for everyone.